Photos by Frank Weir
Washtenaw Trial Court celebrates event
By Frank Weir
In a first-of-its-kind event in Michigan, the Washtenaw County Trial Court held a ‘Family Reunification Day’ at County Farm Park on June 26.
It marked National Reunification Month, always held in June with events scheduled around Father’s Day, and celebrates those families who are able to reunify with their children previously placed in foster care.
Organizers hope this will become an annual event and that other jurisdictions in the state will plan similar celebrations.
Attendees included Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack; Judge Timothy Connors; Homer Mandoka, United Tribes of Michigan president and Tribal Council chair of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi; Juvenile Court Administrator Linda Edwards-Brown; Casey Anbender, management analyst for the Child Welfare Services of the State Court Administrative Office; Kelly Wagner, director, Child Welfare Services of the State Court Administrative Office; and numerous other local attorneys, juvenile and trial court representatives, and other child advocates.
Vivek Sankaran, U-M clinical professor of law, and director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, served as master of ceremonies after a picnic.
“We want to spend a moment to celebrate the successful reunification of families in foster care and honor the professionals who work in this field,” Sankaran began. “This is one of many celebrations across the country but the only one in the state. We are proud as a community to put together this event and this is something we believe in.”
Sankaran noted that nationally there are 400,000 children in foster care, 13,000 in Michigan, and 200 in Washtenaw County.
“The primary responsibility of those of us in the system is to work for the safe reunification of children in foster care. Fifty percent of those children are able to go home due to the hard work of families and professionals tasked with helping those families.”
He acknowledged the planning efforts of Linda Edwards-Brown and Deborah Shaw to make the event come together in a short time. Three families were recognized at the picnic for succeeding in reunification.
Justice McCormack acknowledged how moving the annual Adoption Day celebrations are and that “in a way, this is even more moving.
“As I look around and talk with people today, I believe it’s a privilege to be a part of this celebration. What a tremendous accomplishment. In reading thousands of petitions, you come to understand the struggles that families are facing in this process and of what’s required of them. I know from personal experience and as a mother that parenting is incredibly hard work. Raising a family is hard even when things are going well let alone the curve balls thrown at families in the court process.”
McCormack noted that parents “are only as happy as your unhappiest child.”
“As an appellate judge, it isn’t often that I can look a parent in the face and say, ‘Well Done.’ So it’s nice to say that today. In spite of setbacks, you didn’t stop working to show your kids what it means to be a family. And as important as that accomplishment, you have shown your kids how to get through it when life throws you a curve ball.”
Chairman Mandoka noted that during his involvement in the development of a tribal court system in Michigan, tribal leaders needed to address difficult family situations.
“We wanted to make sure people could see more clearly when in a fog. In the fog, you feel lost, you make wrong decisions. We’ve all been a part of that. We have now developed a court system and a probation system to help struggling individuals see past that fog.
“In the end, it’s always about a relationship. You can talk about models, plans and forecasts but it’s still all about the relationship; eye-to-eye contact and a handshake.
“We all should make sure that we leave this earth a better place than how it was when we came into it, for our children. That’s what should drive us, should be our passion.”
Judge Connors noted that those involved in child welfare work have defined the responsibility to three core accomplishments: safe children, strong families and supportive communities.
“We are always looking at doing whatever furthers those key goals. One thing we have learned from Native American culture and tribal courts is the importance to come to your work with an internal balance. Only then can we bring the best that we have to a situation.
“And we can’t do this alone. Relationships are everything. We need guidance as we walk our path.”
Connors commended Juvenile Court Administrator Linda Edwards-Brown.
“The Juvenile Court has someone who gives us those three goals all the time. She has our back, she is our right hand and our left hand. Linda Edwards-Brown is our juvenile court.”
Edwards-Brown replied that “we are all about the children and anything we can do to improve the lives of the children, we will do that. All the people here today, our staff, are the people that do the work. My mission, the judge’s vision, would not be possible without them. Thanks for being here to celebrate families who worked so hard to bring their families back together.”
Nathan Smith, a single father of three young children all residing in Chelsea, spoke movingly about getting his children back from foster care.
“I went down a dark, deep, and lonely path. I made a lot of bad decisions and I was very selfish in a lot of ways. As a result my kids were taken away for a period of time.
“It took a lot of surrender to addiction and the willingness to do something different with my life to get them back. Once I gave it a try, I was able to be reunified with my kids. It was a difficult process. It’s a struggle daily to do this as a single dad with three kids. I have a lot of help in many areas and one of the biggest helps for me was a 12-step program that I am involved with very deeply.
“I know that if I don’t put recovery first, then I am left without a job, kids, family and friends and the support I need to keep moving. It’s an honor to be standing up here today. Life is good today. I have morals and values and life has meaning”
Sponsors of the event included: The Child Advocacy Law Clinic, Community Support and Treatment Services, The Dispute Resolution Center, Laborers Local 499, Legal Defense Group, State Court Administrative Office – Child Welfare Services, Washtenaw County Government, Washtenaw County Department of Health and Human Services, Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, Washtenaw County Trial Court, Washtenaw County Office of the Public Defender, and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.
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